Oops, There Goes Another Bit of Britain
Saturday February 28, 2004 - The Guardian
A planned new quarry threatens to destroy the tranquillity of the Peak District's finest megalithic monument. Chris Moss finds ramblers, locals and pagans united in opposition
Driving along the A6, it's not immediately obvious that the Peak District might well be England's most important national park. In fact, it's easy to forget you're in a park at all - there are plenty of pretty towns and old farms lining the river valleys, and old mills and stone-walled inns worthy of an urbanite's cosiest drinking dream - but the dramatic, bleakly beautiful heights of the southern Pennines are most often obscured by steep dales or low mists.
The Peak (as locals call it) is about leisure as much as landscape. The 555 square-mile national park is a lung for the people of Manchester, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield and Stoke. The first national park, it was created in 1951 precisely to put a green belt between these sprawling conurbations. It's visited by some 22m people each year (only Japan's Mount Fuji's national park tops it). And, if it lacks Cumbria's photogenic lakes, the Peak's landscape of gritstone outcrops, limestone crags, heather and peat moorland - Daniel Defoe called it "a waste and howling wilderness" - has a rugged, romantic appeal.
Among the Peak's many secrets are vestiges of the bronze age: cairns, burial mounds, stone circles and hillforts. Outstanding among these is the Nine Ladies stone circle at Stanton Lees, between Bakewell and Matlock. Between 3,000 and 4,000 years old, these nine stumpy stones, probably built for rituals honouring the sun and moon, stand in a small circle like old teeth, surrounded by silver birch, ash and beech trees and, beyond these, a beautiful stretch of moorland dotted with further Neolithic remnants and ruins.
No wonder then that any attempt to make any inroads into this landscape that are not destined for boot-clad backpackers is resisted so fiercely by locals and tourists alike. Just beneath the Nine Ladies site is where Stancliffe Stone wants to quarry 3.2m tons of millstone grit for the building trade. While the development rights to this dormant quarry - on land owned by Lord Edward Manners, who lives in Haddon Hall, just a few minutes' drive from the site - are legally binding, villagers, townsmen and scores of eco-minded travellers have come together to protect the ancient heritage and the tourism that is the region's lifeblood.
Walking up to the site from the village of Rowsley (also owned by Lord Manners), I spoke to two of the protesters, Becky Walsh and David Connolly, who were out on a ramble between sessions of constructing ramparts to prevent the quarrying firm's diggers from approaching the rock face. "It's just big money trying, as always, to get what it can out of the land," claims Becky. "But we've been here for about four years now and we know how precious it is to locals.
"It's so peaceful - and if this goes ahead, there will be a massive hole just 100m away. As well as the stones, there are burial mounds here and lots of ruins that have never been investigated. These draw pagans who come to perform handfasting (pagan marriages) or to practise wicca mediation, and whirling dervishes use the site, too."
Like many other circles, there is a rich pagan-cum-druidic folklore that extends way beyond the tentative specualtions of history books. One story is that the Nine Ladies were formed by people being turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath - the "King Stone", on a bank just a few yards away, was said to have been their fiddler. It is also said that when the moon is full, the stones move around in a ritual dance.
While we are talking, behind me, a young man starts to spin slowly in the centre of the circle - not quite my idea of a dervish, but his eyes are closed and his concetration absolute. He claims "most of the villagers are right behind the protesters, because they don't want a four-ton truck loaded with gravel passing their little cottages at 6am, do they?"
Beyond the gentle stir of the wind in the leafless trees, you can hear the beeps and churning from Dale View quarry, less than a mile away. If digging was allowed any closer, the serentity and spiritual value of the Nine Ladies would be completely destroyed.
But it's not all about pagans who cherish the site for sacral purposes. During the next afternoon, scores of couples, strolling families and locals walking their dogs pass by as they hike over the moors. There's even a group of six or seven Sheffield youths having an impromptu picnic, despite the fact that the grass is damp and there's a bitter nip in the February air.
Another walker, Jenny Blain, joins us on the grass at the centre of the circle, and tells me she is researching "how people relate to landscapes" at Sheffield Hallam University. She emphasises the academic value of the site: "This is important to archeologists with an interest in prehistory, who study the cairns and kist graves. Then there are archeologists of the early modern period, as well as scientists who come to study the bats here - there are two protected species."
Jenny points out that "the special feel of the Nine Ladies comes from that fact that they are part of a bigger landscape. This means so much to so many people - and locals join in at festivals like Imbolc (ewe's milk, for when sheep lactate in spring)."
The Peak District, like other national parks, came about when the gentry and working class ramblers united to stem industrial expansion; as that lobby has dwindled, new alliances are needed.
Lonely as it is on the hilltops and among the burial mounds, the Nine Ladies are close to dozens of villages. Old pubs and B&Bs - from farms to hotel-style townhouses. After a day of cold, clean air and Woden-knows-what spiritual blessings from the Nine Ladies, I am in my bed - in a converted barn -by 9pm.
The Peak District serves more than just the north-west, though - it is central enough for Londoners to get to the Nine Ladies easily, too. I travelled from south-east London to 2500BC in just three and a half hours.
The following morning, before making the return journey, I drive up to Stanton Moor to see the Nine Ladies one more time. The daffodils are still there and, for the first time this weekend, there's no one else around. After a quick look about me, I stride to the centre and stand in the empty space - and even gyrate slowly to see if any thing happens. My sullied modern sou is not transfigured, but the circle is profoundly calming and, thanks to Bronze Age man's meterological intuition, protected from the harsh elements of the Peak winter.
After a quick stroll over the moor, frightenting partridges and watching the sun struggle to break through the clouds, I turn round and, cross the hill above the disused quarry. I head back down the side where the protesters are sleeping in their makeshift tree houses and where, just a mile or so down the valley, Lord Edward Manners is no doubt tucking into his breakfast of kippers and cold meats.
A vicious February northeasterly is now blasting and I leave the bare, exposed beauty of Neolithic England for the refuge of the car.
Posted by nickbrand
29th February 2004ce
Edited 1st March 2004ce